The anything-goes potluck dinner, those democratic shindigs where each guest comes armed with a homemade dish, is great fun to attend. After all, how often does one get to pile a plate high with a mélange of discordant items like vegetable lasagna, quiche Lorraine, and Cajun-spiced chicken fingers? But these convivial smorgasbords are also rife with risk, because what if no one has the good sense to make green beans, and there are three platters of chocolate chip cookies?
One aspect of these suppers that need not confound, however, is what to sip. It is entirely possible to find a bottle that goes well with caprese salad and doesn't clash with tacos al pastor. Here are a few strategies from the pros, organized by type of wine.
"Obviously you don't know what the food will be, and there will be a big group, so you need a crowd-pleaser," says Nick Morisi, wine director at Yvonne's, a supper club in Boston. "Keep in mind that acidity is your friend when it comes to pairing. Stylistically, Champagne is designed for versatility, while being fun and celebratory."
Ron Acierto, owner and wine director of Muselet Restaurant and Wine Bar in Portland, Oregon, says all sparkling wines — whether a French not-made-in-Champagne Crémant or a South African bubbly — are wise picks for such fêtes. Locally, he seeks out effervescent creations from the likes of Johan Vineyards and Maysara Winery in the Willamette Valley, both of which have sparkling rosés in the $20 range.
For a less buoyant alternative, consider bringing a bottle of white, decidedly more adaptable than red. Acierto finds that Alsatian wines — Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Sylvaner among them — are affordably priced and make fine companions to food. With its welcoming surge of acidity, a dry German Riesling would also do the trick.
Sancerre, a "bright, easy white that appeals to Old World and New World drinkers," is something Michael Serpa, chef and owner of SELECT Oyster Bar, in Boston, would serve at such motley feasts, especially from the producers Alban Roblin, Domaine Lucien Crochet, or Domaine Claude Riffault.
Chardonnay, a favorite for many imbibers, should not be overlooked either. Serpa favors those hailing from the Santa Barbara area and made by progressive winemakers like Liquid Farm and Lompoc Wine Co. — "they will appeal to both California Chardonnay and white Burgundy drinkers" — but the pricing, around $30 to $40 per bottle, may be a bit steep for potluck. Instead, Al Gandall, beverage manger of CUCINA enoteca Newport Beach, in California, recommends going "down under" for a Chardonnay from Australia's Margaret River. "It's great for a potluck," he says, "because it combines tropical notes with French-like minerality" — and you can find plenty of options for less than $20.
Even the doldrums of winter wouldn't keep you from devouring a hot fudge sundae, and so donning a parka is no excuse to grimace at a glass or two of dry rosé. A good match for edibles as diverse as yogurt dip and merguez, chances are a summer-evocative rosé will be a potluck hit. Serpa suggests turning to Provence for a top-notch bottle from Château Pradeaux or Domaine du Bagnol, which sell for $20 to $25.
Unless everyone in the brood is laboring over a crock of hearty chili, a hefty Cabernet Sauvignon is probably not the safest bet. "With a potluck, pleasing a lot of different tastes is the name of the game," says David Giuliano, sommelier of Market Table in New York. With its broad spectrum of flavors, he vouches for a Rhône blend. "You could go with a simple Côtes du Rhône or perhaps a Gigondas or Vacqueyras, which can often give you the power and complexity of a Châteauneuf-du-Pape at a fraction of the price," he explains. "If you are feeling adventurous, seek out some of the amazing ones from California. My favorite is Edmunds St John 's 'Rocks & Gravel,' a blend of Grenache and Syrah from Sonoma County, which will go with everything from ribs to stir-fry."
Gandall deems this type of laid-back culinary event an opportunity to open a bottle of easy-to-drink, yet still complex, Merlot from Washington's Walla Walla Valley. "One of my favorite producers is Reininger Winery," he points out — and you can find several vintages for around $25.
Perhaps your bigger worry now is deliberating between making that baked ziti or shepherd's pie.